Tales and the legend of an Orangutan King

Orangutan babies are like human babies – helpless.

— Willie Smits, Dutch microbiologists

Even though we are an educated community, we continue to read about our students having to climb trees to obtain better internet communications.

No wonder some town folk in the peninsular seem to think that we Sarawakians once lived on tree houses like the Korowai of Papua still do.

As a young boy, I tried to ape the monkeys but while climbing a tree, I fell — the end result being mum’s tongue-lashing and thrashing.

Many years later, I discovered that apart from the odd human, the greatest tree climbers are our closest relatives — the “Man of the Forest”.

In fact, orangutans share 97 per cent of their DNA with humans, making us one of their closest evolutionary cousins.

After adopting a young primate 30 years ago, I learnt some interesting facts about Sarawak’s great “orangs” as western journalists refer to our “mais”.

But I bet the “Orang Puteh” have never heard about the Legend of an Orangutan King or “Rajah Mais” a supernatural ape-man who married a village maiden.

As the story goes, in ancient times a daughter of a longhouse chief was “ape-napped” by a massive primate in the wilds of the Batang Ai forests.

Apparently, he had a crush on this fair and lovely lass who often foraged for food, alone in the forest.

Taken to the top of his majestic tree house, Rajah “Mais” copulated with her and they had a son.
In the meantime, the villagers searched for the maiden thinking she had been kidnapped by a rival group but failed to find her.

Many years later, the ape’s captive wife escaped down the tree with her son and returned to her longhouse to tell them of this bizarre story of how she had a hairy son.

The story has a happy ending because the boy rose to become “King” and decreed it was taboo to keep captive their jungle companions.

Legends aside, I learnt of a true story of an adopted orangutan who was raised as human being.

According to an old friend, the late Sarawak Special Branch Datuk Lawrence Lim Eng Liong, he came to learn about “Ungka” 60 years ago during the Confrontation.

Lawrence said that on the night of August 19, 1963, his group of police intelligence officers, visited the 37-door Rumah Jawi on the Kanowit River in Kapit.

On hand to receive them was a strange man with long red and hairy arms, wearing black trousers and a hat named Ungka.

Lim continued: “Ungka accompanied me to the bathroom at the back of the room carrying a pail in his left hand and a soap in his right hand.”

“He took me by my hand as we entered the longhouse. Tired, hungry and exhausted after the long journey, the “man” carried my bags into the headman’s room where I prepared to have a cold bath.”

After that, Lim joined the others at the ruai, the common corridor during which Ungka was the star dancer.

“I noted that Ungka’s skill in the ngajat (a traditional Iban war dance) was excellent. No dancers could match him as he imitated the movements of monkeys and other animals in the forest, including birds and our hornbills,” Lim added.

After the party, Lim went to sleep and as he was dozing off, saw the hairy man sleeping next to him.

“I jumped up thinking that it was a ghost. Then I noticed for the first time that Ungka was an orangutan.”

On Jan 26, 2003, Lim learnt that Ungka who was still alive had been given the name “Lawrence” by Catholic Rev Fr Vos.

He said: “I was also told that Ungka was adopted by Rev Fr Vos and was looking after the chapel next to Rumah Jawi. He helped to beat the gong every Sunday morning and wore a white frock during mass.

Ungka was also credited with saving the occupants of Rumah Jawi on January 13, 2003 following a flash flood.

Lim added: “That night Ungka climbed up the roof of the chapel and hung a lamp by the side of the cross.

Suddenly, there was a beating of gongs as a great flash flood hit the longhouse within a short time and the water rose to 50 feet, reaching the floor of the longhouse. As it continued rising, the people panicked and climbed onto the roof.”

Strange but true, Ungka with his lamp started waving and urging the inhabitants to swim to the foot of the hill and join him at the chapel.

Thus all the inhabitants were saved in one of the district’s worst floods where the town of Pakan far downriver came under eight feet of water.

Lim added,“Coincidentally, my reporter friend James Ritchie called me during the floods but I switched off my handphone.

“I was afraid that he would write the article about Ungka and the Forestry Department would remove the primate which would be a sad thing.”

It’s been 20 years since I was told the story and I wonder whether anyone from Rumah Jawi could enlighten me on the truth behind the story.

Or maybe Father’s Vos’ colleagues from the Catholic Mission or six-term Pakan assemblyman Tan Sri William Mawan can help?

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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